The last time Hilario Duran, the 69-year-old Cuban Canadian piano master and composer, teamed up with another pianist was in 2017, when he performed duets at a concert in Germany with his legendary friend and fellow Cuban émigré Chucho Valdés, accompanied by the WDR Big Band. Until now.
Recently Toronto producer Peter Cardinali asked Duran to create an album for his Alma label. “Peter suggested a duet format with a pianist of the younger generation,” Duran said recently by Zoom from his Toronto home. “Without hesitation I immediately thought of David Virelles. I think he’s the most mature as an artist and as a pianist.”
The result is Front Street Duets, a mix of original Duran compositions with a pair of Cuban standards and, as a closing number, a spectacular Cubano take on “Body and Soul.” Throughout the album, Duran and Virelles play traditional Afro-Cuban styles like guajira and punto cubano with generous opportunities for the two pianists to improvise. Duran and Virelles play, with fiery commitment, music that is simultaneously romantic and intellectually challenging, densely orchestral, and grounded in an ever-present Cuban tumbao.
Over a career spanning more than 45 years, Duran has won three Juno Awards, a Grammy nomination, and a host of other honors, recording more than a dozen albums, including duos, trios, and big bands. I caught him live recently when Chucho Valdés’ tour visited the Berklee Performance Center in Boston; Duran was serving as co-musical director (with John Beasley) of Chucho’s big band.
“Since my early twenties, Chucho was my mentor,” Duran told me. In the Havana of the 1970s, the young Duran was a student of Western classical music obsessed with jazz when Valdés took him under his wing. Soon he began subbing for the older man in the Orquesta Cubana de Música Moderna, the nation’s most modern big band.
“Subbing for him changed my life,” Duran said. Before long, Duran began writing arrangements for Irakere, Valdés’ pioneering jazz and Afro-Cuban band, which also spawned trumpeter Arturo Sandoval and sax/clarinetist Paquito D’Rivera. After all three emigrated, Duran followed. He joined Sandoval’s band as musical director, arranger, and pianist for nine years, touring the world and performing with Dizzy Gillespie and Michel Legrand.
Virelles, another Cuban émigré and Duran’s junior by 30 years, had been a longtime admirer of Duran before he met him in Toronto. They were introduced by Jane Bunnett, the Canadian saxophonist, flutist, and Cuban music bandleader. Duran played in her band for years; Virelles began subbing for him after he landed in Toronto. Virelles eventually departed for New York, where he has become one of the most heralded pianists of his generation, recording as a leader for Pi and ECM. He has played and recorded with Henry Threadgill, Andrew Cyrille, Ravi Coltrane, Mark Turner, Chris Potter, Tomasz Stanko, Steve Coleman and Wadada Leo Smith, and many more.
“To me, the album is a continuation of hundreds of years of Cuban piano culture,” Virelles said by phone. “Hilario and I have different sets of [musical] influences, but there’s a collective consciousness that both of us come out of. This album is basically an effort to contribute to that lineage.”
The chemistry between the two pianists makes for a remarkable listening experience: It often sounds as if one is listening to one pianist with four hands, albeit spanning two pianos. Duran agreed: “David and I have the same background and roots in Cuba. We understood each other very well. The only difficulty is that sometimes you can’t tell who’s improvising—David or me—because we sound almost the same. I mean, we have different styles, but they blend together really well.”